. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Murderous Cycle of Revenge in Dagestan

NewsteamGadzhi Abidov, far left, and six co-defendants listening to the verdict in a Makhachkala courtroom in September. They were sentenced to 20 years in prison.
MAKHACHKALA -- When Dagestani police picked up small-time car parts trader Shamil Abidov in a routine security sweep in May 2003, he was on his way to a car market on the outskirts of town with $500 in his pocket.

That $500, plus another $500 paid to police by his family, secured Abidov's release a few days later, but only after he and his friend, Sharaputdin Labazanov, had been beaten and tortured. Police investigators had demanded they confess to being members of a terrorist organization and planted a hand grenade among Abidov's things.

The story, as told by his brother Gadzhi Abidov from a chilly Makhachkala jail cell after his own conviction in a murder case, is but a small episode in the ongoing bloody war between Dagestan's religious extremists and the police and Federal Security Service investigators whose job it is to track them down.

There is no evidence that at the time of his arrest Shamil Abidov had committed any crime. Since his release, his brother said, he has helped kill the police officer who tortured him and joined the ranks of those committed to seeking revenge for the crackdown on radical Muslims.

In this undeclared war, to which there appears to be no end in sight, dozens of investigators and militants have been killed in a maelstrom of pain, crime, humiliation and vengeance.

As in neighboring Chechnya, where the killing of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov last week looks likely to strengthen the hand of more radical figures such as Shamil Basayev, the heavy-handed tactics by police and security forces in Dagestan have helped Islamic extremists recruit young fighters to their cause. The violence in Dagestan also serves Basayev's goal of spreading his war across the North Caucasus.

Last September, Gadzhi Abidov, 27, and six other men were jailed for 20 years in the August 2003 killing of police Major Tagir Abdullayev. In an interview after the sentence was passed, Gadzhi Abidov said his brother and Labazanov had killed Abdullayev in revenge for his torturing them three months earlier.

Major Abdullayev was just one of the dozens of police and security officers who have been killed in the wave of attacks, most of them from units investigating terrorism and religious extremism, including a deputy minister and two chiefs of the local Interior Ministry's anti-terrorism units.

Shamil Abidov is still at large, wanted in the murder of several police and FSB officers. Gadzhi Abidov defended his brother, saying there were strong motives behind his crimes.

Police say the group responsible for the attacks is called Jenet, or Paradise in Arabic, and is led by Rasul Makhasharipov, a former interpreter for Basayev. In statements posted on the Chechen rebels' Kavkaz Center web site, the group has identified itself as Sharia Jamaat, or Justice Muslim Community.

In leaflets the group has been distributing across Dagestan and in statements on the rebel web site, the murders, which began in fall of 2002, have been described as revenge for the torture and humiliation of Dagestani Muslims. The group has promised it would carry out more attacks on investigators.

Sergei Rasulov / Newsteam

Major General Magomed Omarov and three other officers were killed in a hail of bullets in Makhachkala on Feb. 2.

The attacks have come against the backdrop of a crackdown on the republic's radical Wahhabi Muslims, which began almost six years ago, after the armed incursion by Basayev into Dagestan in August 1999.

Most Dagestanis are Sunni Muslims whose religious life is regulated by the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims, a public body loyal to the republic's government. It administers most of the republic's mosques, religious schools and the traditional hajj, or pilgrimage.

In the 1990s, as Islamic preachers began traveling to Dagestan from the Middle East and many young Dagestanis returned from religious studies abroad, dissent grew among local Muslims, with many abandoning their allegiance to the spiritual board and following more fundamentalist strains of Islam.

The board labeled the apostates Wahhabis, after the 18th-century Islamic fundamentalist scholar Muhhamed bin Abdel Wahhab.

Dagestan, which has the most ethnically diverse population of the North Caucasus republics, is also the only republic in Russia to have set up a special police unit to combat religious extremism.

In the crackdown, police also have labeled many people Wahhabis who study and practice their religion independently of the official mosques.

On that day in May 2003, when Shamil Abidov and his friend Labazanov were arrested, police singled out Labazanov for his religious studies, Gadzhi Abidov said.

In one interrogation session, Labazanov told police that he had been spending time with another friend of Shamil Abidov's, Mahmud Magomedov. Police brought in Magomedov and also tortured and "humiliated him," Gadzhi Abidov said. Asked what he meant by humiliation, he said rape.

Dmitry Nikiforov / Newsteam

Police searching an apartment in Khasavyurt after storming the building Feb. 22. One suspected militant was killed.

Twenty or so other men picked up in the same May 2003 sweep were released several days later, with no charges brought against them.

"My brother and Mahmud vowed to take revenge and they killed Tagir Abdullayev, the officer who had been torturing them," Gadhzi Abidov said.

Abdullayev was gunned down in broad daylight in August 2003.

In the three months after the release of his brother, Labazanov and Magomedov, Gadzhi Abidov said he had joined them in carrying out surveillance of the police officers who tortured them. They also began looking for other people who had suffered police torture, mostly among young worshippers at Makhachkala mosques.

Allegations of police torture in Dagestan are legion, with the most notorious cases of confessions being beaten out of suspects widely reported in the local and national press.

In one case, several national newspapers wrote about Dagestani policemen pulling the teeth and breaking the fingers and other bones of federal military officers accused of selling explosives to terrorists, including the land mine used to bomb the Victory Day parade in the Caspian Sea port of Kaspiisk in May 2002. In 2003, a Dagestani court dismissed all the evidence against the officers, saying it had been extracted from them under torture.

During this case, a journalist working at the state-run Makhachkalinskiye Izvestia newspaper wrote that she had heard screams coming from inside the Makhachkala office of the police's organized crime unit. Local residents told her that they heard such screams almost daily, she reported.

When she asked the department chief, Imamutdin Temirbulatov, for an explanation, he said that his colleagues from the religious extremism unit, which occupied a wing in the building, were responsible for the prisoners' screams.

No senior officers of the religious extremism unit agreed to be interviewed for this article about allegations of torture, despite several requests.


Officers looking through the ruins of a house in Makhachkala on Jan. 16. They had crushed it with a tank the day before, believing Makasharipov was inside.

But Zagir Arukhov, Dagestan's minister of information and external relations, defended the police's methods. "This harshness is forced upon those who want to counter the growth of extremism. In fact, it was the Dagestani authorities that created the legal basis to fight religious extremism," he said, referring to a controversial law passed in the fall of 1999 by the republic's legislature.

The law allowed law enforcement agencies to prosecute people for possessing religious literature that the Spiritual Board of Dagestani Muslims viewed as Wahhabi in nature.

The law, adopted shortly after the Basayev-led incursion into Dagestan, has been fiercely criticized by human rights advocates and legal experts in Moscow, but has been widely used by Dagestani law enforcement agencies to crack down on independent-minded believers.

One of the men recruited to avenge the police torture was Ziyautdin Shapiyev, a self-taught Islamic scholar, who twice had been detained and tortured by Dagestani police and the FSB, Gadzhi Abidov said.

Shapiyev brought the four men -- Shamil and Gadzhi Abidov, Labazanov and Magomedov -- to a meeting with Makasharipov, the Jenet leader, at a house on the outskirts of Makhachkala in late July 2003.

In a video made by Chechen rebels during their invasion of Dagestan in August 1999, Makasharipov -- who later took the alias of Muslim -- was often pictured next to Basayev, translating for him from Russian into the Avar language, which is spoken in the Tsumada and Botlikh districts of Dagestan.

In 2000, Makasharipov had surrendered to Dagestani authorities and was tried for participating in an illegal armed formation, the legal term used to describe rebel groups. The following year, he was released under an amnesty. The authorities say that after his release, Makasharipov set up a terrorist network to attack law enforcement officers, recruiting mostly among young religious radicals who had suffered abuses at the hands of the police.

The first man appointed to lead the Dagestani police's religious extremism unit, Colonel Akhberdilav Akilov, was the first police investigator to be targeted by Makasharipov's fighters. Akilov was killed in September 2002 when his Volga sedan was riddled with bullets fired from a passing car in central Makhachkala. Akilov's driver and a passer-by were also killed in the attack.

"Makasharipov spoke about the necessity to stop persecution and humiliation of Muslims in Dagestan. He said this could be done by killing policemen," Gadzhi Abidov said.

When the brothers mentioned Abdullayev to Makasharipov, he said that many people had complained about him, Gadzhi Abidov said. He said Makasharipov then pulled a slip of paper from his wallet and read out Abdullayev's address and described a car he used. This kind of information about police investigators is normally classified.

After two militants were killed in a clash with police in Makhachkala last week, a list of senior officers of the republic's Interior Ministry and prosecutor's office with their addresses and phone numbers was found on one of the dead militants. The Dagestani interior minister, Adilgirei Magomedtagirov, told journalists that the list included information even for officers who had been sent to Dagestan from other Russian regions.

Sergei Rasulov / Newsteam

Special forces besieging a Makhachkala house on Jan. 15. Five gunmen holed up inside held them off for 16 hours.

In an interview on NTV television last week, Magomedtagirov said this implied the militants had a mole inside his ministry and he vowed to find the turncoat among his staff. "This is real treason and nothing else," he said.

A statement from Sharia Jamaat, published on the Kavkaz Center web site last week, said the list of 140 law enforcement officials found on March 6 had been given to the militants by senior police officials in exchange for guarantees of personal safety.

Gadzhi Abidov said that Makasharipov provided the coordination for several groups of men who were targeting policemen in Dagestan, helping them with intelligence and arms.

"He asked us if we had a car and pistols with silencers, and advised us not to use grenades, saying that innocent people could be hurt," he said. "He always insisted we kill only investigators, not other police officers."

Gadzhi Abidov said his brother and Magomedov shot Abdullayev two days after Makasharipov had given them the officer's address.

"Then my brother said that he was going to kill two other police officers who had tortured him, and Makasharipov asked us to kill other policemen in revenge for abuses carried out against Muslims," Abidov said.

Two weeks after the murder of Abdullayev in August 2003, traffic police picked up Gadzhi Abidov and Labazanov; it was another routine document check. When Abidov protested his car being searched and asked for witnesses to be present during the search, the two men were detained. Officers handcuffed Abidov, and as they drove him to a police station, one of them frisked him and felt a pistol tucked into his belt, according to court testimony.

"After they brought me into the police station, they began beating me. Nobody asked me any questions," Gadzhi Abidov said.

The torture included having a plastic bag put over his head, and being beaten with plastic bottles filled with water over the head and kidneys, he said.

At one point, an officer from the religious extremism unit pulled out a gun and shot him through the left shoulder, he said, pulling off his sweater to show two star-shaped scars on his upper arm. The officer boasted that he could shoot him dead and not be held responsible, Gadzhi Abidov said.

Investigators have denied Gadzhi Abidov's allegation about the shooting, saying that he received the wound in a tussle after trying to grab the officer's gun during an interrogation session.

But another investigator, who said he was in the room during the incident, later testified in court that he did not remember how Gadzhi Abidov had gotten shot.

Gadzhi Abidov also showed a constellation of white scars on his chest, and said they were caused by repeated pistol-whippings.

Labazanov told the court that he also had been beaten over the head with a plastic bottle filled with water.

His mother, Aishat Labazanova, testified at his trial that she could not recognize her son when she saw him in court 10 days after his detention. "His head was swollen to twice its normal size," she said.

Ten days after they were detained, Gadzhi Abidov and Labazanov were charged with the killings of Abdullayev and another police investigator, Magomed Mikhtalov.

In their trial last summer, regional prosecutors demanded prison terms of 26 years for Abidov, Labazanov and seven other defendants -- more than allowed by federal law.

The jury dismissed the charge of murdering Mikhtalov.

Gadzhi Abidov said that for several months after his arrest he was repeatedly beaten and tortured at police stations.

He claimed that the police chief at Makhachkala's Kirovsky precinct, Gusenali Adzhamatov, had him hung upside down for two days and fired off rounds near his head.

He also said that he had been subjected to the slonik, or little elephant, a form of torture that involves wearing a gas mask while its air supply is temporarily blocked.

Suspects in several earlier Makhachkala terrorist trials have also accused Adzhamatov of torture.

"Senior officers torture prospective suspects personally in the hope of getting exclusive information," Gadzhi Abidov said.

Adzhamatov was gunned down in his car in Makhachkala in January 2004.

Lawyer Sergei Kvasov, a former major in the police's organized crime unit who defended Gadzhi Abidov and his fellow suspects, said the republic's law enforcement agencies routinely resort to torture in an effort to improve their rates for solving crimes.

"In Dagestan, the rate at which serious crimes are solved is higher than in any country in Western Europe," Kvasov said. "Many professional investigators have quit the service, and the ones who remain lack knowledge and skills. Under pressure from above to produce results, they use torture."

Police officials from other parts of Russia said in informal interviews that if the Dagestan police killings had been carried out anywhere else, top regional policemen would have been fired by Moscow.

But the Dagestani government, which almost entirely depends on federal subsidies for its budget, is being treated as a different case, Kvasov said.

"Moscow is sending a clear signal to Dagestani officials: You can do whatever you want, as long as you stay loyal," he said.

Gadzhi Abidov said he believed his brother participated in the murder of Adzhamatov, the precinct police chief. He also said that it was his brother who unsuccessfully attempted to kill prosecutor Kamil Kaziyev, who oversaw the investigation in Gadzhi Abidov's case.

"My brother is with Makasharipov, I know," Gadzhi Abidov said. "He is killing cops and will not swerve from this path."

Throughout the investigation into Gadzhi Abidov and his fellow suspects, defense lawyer Kvasov said he was not allowed to see his clients for weeks. "I filed several complaints to local prosecutors, only to see them later on the table of police investigators in charge of the case," he said.

During the investigation, Abidov admitted being a leader of the group and killing two police officers. Later in court he said the confession had been made under torture. He admitted only to the illegal purchase and possession of the pistol.

He did, however, acknowledge having participated in another crime. Shortly after his brother was released from police custody, the Abidovs and Magomedov broke into the apartment of Gadzhi Abidov's university professor, intending to rob her, he said. Her husband, who was at home, fought back against the intruders and was killed by Shamil Abidov in what Gadzhi Abidov said in court was "a tragic accident."

Police have arrested several other young men, including some of Gadzhi Abidov's schoolmates, and charged them with illegal weapons possession. Of five men taken to court, two were set free by a jury -- one due to lack of evidence, and the other for voluntarily handing over weapons to the police.

Meanwhile, as the killing of police investigators continued, Gadzhi Abidov said his treatment became more lenient.

"The investigators stopped torturing me, and some officers began telling me that they had nothing against Muslims. You see, the killings worked," he said.

Kvasov confirmed that his clients' complaints of torture stopped last May, at the same time as investigators stopped blocking his visits to them.

There were no attacks on policemen during the two months of the trial. The lawyer said this was because the avengers who remained at large were waiting to see what verdict would be handed down.

But after the guilty verdicts in September, the attacks resumed, becoming more frequent and more audacious, with several police stations being bombed and several high-ranking police and FSB officers being shot dead.

Police three times claimed to have trapped Makasharipov and his followers -- the first time in a tent camp outside Makhachkala, and the second time in an apartment in the city. Both times he managed to escape, killing more policemen in fierce clashes.

In the third case, this January, police laid siege to a house in Makhachkala, and five gunmen inside held off dozens of police officers and troops in a 16-hour gun battle. After one officer of the FSB's elite Alfa unit was killed in the fighting, police called in a tank that crushed the house with the gunmen inside.

Police officials rushed to announce that Makasharipov was among those whose bodies were retrieved from the debris. But the next day, Makhasharipov posted a letter on the rebel Kavkaz Center web site disavowing the police claim. Police then said they had mistaken Makasharipov's cousin for him.

Less than three weeks after that carnage, the gunmen struck back, killing their highest-ranking target so far. Major General Magomed Omarov, the republic's deputy interior minister who was in charge of police operations in which several of Makasharipov's gunmen were killed, died on Feb. 2 as his car was hit by a hail of bullets in central Makhachkala. Three other police officers were also killed in the attack.

Since then, at least eight police officers, including one district police chief, have been killed and at least eight more wounded in bombings and shootouts.

Sergei Rasulov contributed to this report from Dagestan.